Alberto Curamil

2019 Goldman Prize Recipient
South and Central America

  • Chile
  • Freshwater

Alberto Curamil, an indigenous Mapuche, organized the people of Araucanía to stop the construction of two hydroelectric projects on the sacred Cautín River in central Chile. The destructive projects, canceled in late 2016, would have diverted hundreds of millions of gallons of water from the river each day, harming a critical ecosystem and exacerbating drought conditions in the region. In August 2018, Curamil was arrested and remains in jail today. Colleagues believe that he was arrested because of his environmental activism.

Privatizing sacred land and water

The Mapuche people comprise the largest indigenous group in Chile. In their native language, Mapuche means “people of the land,” and they consider forests, rivers, and animals as their brothers. In the 19th century, the Chilean army invaded the Araucanía region—then autonomous Mapuche land—and gave the land to private owners. Today, Araucanía is the poorest region in Chile, with close to one-third of the population living below the poverty line.

One of the legacies of Chile’s 30-year dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet was the privatization of Chile’s water resources. The country’s national water code, adopted in 1981, eliminated water as a common good for the people and handed ownership of this resource to the highest bidders. The impacts of this were especially felt by the Mapuche, who depend upon rivers for their livelihood and consider these waters sacred.

Between 2010 and 2015, at the height of a megadrought, Chile’s minister of energy announced a massive energy plan that included 40 large hydroelectric projects on Araucanía’s rivers. As part of that plan, the government and two private energy companies—SwissHydro and Agrisol—planned to build, without consulting Mapuche communities, two multi-million-dollar hydro projects on the Cautín River, in the heart of Mapuche territory. Those projects, known respectively as the Alto Cautín and the Doña Alicia, could divert over 500 million gallons of water per day from the Cautín River for power generation. Reducing the amount of water flowing in rivers greatly increases the amount of sediment in the water, harming fish and other wildlife, destroying the natural flow of water, and eroding the sensitive riparian ecosystems along the edge of the sacred Cautín River.

An indigenous leader and protector

Alberto Curamil, 45, is an indigenous Mapuche in central Chile’s Araucanía region. He is a well-respected leader and spokesperson for the Alianza Territorial Mapuche and has dedicated his work to the protection of the region’s rivers and forests. Curamil has also helped the Mapuche recover their ancestral practices and preserve their native language, Mapudungun.

Building broad and diverse coalitions

Already a trusted leader for his defense of Araucanía’s forests from destructive logging, Curamil used the Mapuche’s traditional gatherings to bring people together and organize resistance to the hydroelectric projects. He invited non-Mapuche community members, environmental organizations, and academics, who traditionally did not participate in indigenous assemblies. Curamil knew that a united front was needed to stop these destructive projects, and together they formed a critical coalition.

Curamil’s multipronged strategy included street protests, marches, and road blockades, all of which raised the profile of the Mapuche and their fight to protect the rivers of Araucanía. Curamil also sought advice from academics, environmental professionals, and NGOs on the projects’ environmental and cultural impacts.

Additionally, Curamil launched a legal campaign against the hydropower projects. He partnered with a team of pro bono lawyers that had supported indigenous groups in Chile. Together, they mounted a legal challenge, showing that the Chilean government had violated Chilean law, which guarantees free, prior, and informed consent before advancing any development project.

In 2014, police arrested Curamil and two other Mapuche leaders and accused them of disorderly conduct and causing public unrest for organizing protests. Police beat Curamil while in custody, badly bruising his face. Police also attacked his pregnant wife.

Still, Curamil overcame persecution and violent attacks to bridge divides and unite Chileans to stop the hydroelectric projects and protect a sacred river. Because of his leadership, in May 2016, Chile’s Environmental Service Agency canceled the Alto Cautín hydro project, citing public opposition from the communities. Later that year, in December 2016, Chile’s Third Environmental Tribunal ruled that the Doña Alicia hydro project could not move forward, noting that the government had failed to consult with the Mapuche or address the environmental impacts of the project.

In August 2018, Chilean police arrested Curamil for alleged participation in criminal activity. Sources unanimously believe that Curamil was arrested due to his role in stopping the hydroelectric projects.

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